Given his much-impersonated rasp and gift for Menckenesque quips (“Horse sense is the thing a horse has that keeps it from betting on people”), it’s surprising to find W. C. FIELDS (1879-1946) telling Photoplay, as of 1925, “I prefer pantomime over dialogue. The laughs can come quicker.” While the former Claude Dukenfield might still be remembered for his silent-era work, he braved the transition to sound more successfully than any contemporary save Chaplin. He did something resembling acting in other people’s films (notably, David Copperfield), but his legacy rests on such self-directed vehicles as It’s a Gift and The Bank Dick which were largely improvised, at least when it came to Fields’ own dialogue. These later films’ physical comedy, though, was as precise as ever: his byplay with a business card tips Fields’ beginnings as a Zigfield Follies juggler, while his battle with intransigent golfing equipment in 1941’s You’re Telling Me hones and extends a stage routine he first filmed in ’30. Whatever the relationship between his off-screen self and the hapless-spouse-turned-hopeless-souse he played, some of the skeptical misanthropy his performances project seems to have been real: when deathbed visitors found him reading the Bible, he explained: “I’m looking for loopholes.”
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